Album Challenge Day 10: “A Night At Studio 54”

A Night At Studio 54

In my dreams, I get the nod and leave the pleading masses behind, through the velvet ropes, with Liza on my arm or perhaps I’m riding a horse, into the most decadent gathering since the Roman Orgies, a light show above swirling dancers, people doing who knows what in the balcony, and above it all, the moon snorting coke.

Well, I was only 14 years old during the height of Studio 54’s heyday, so that hardly would have been realistic unless I was friends with Brooke Shields or Michael Jackson, but you can bet that I heard all about the famed club even while growing up in Japan.

And ever since, I’ve been obsessed with what it would have been like to be there. What a perfect use for a time machine! That is why I’ve picked club’s official album, “A Night at Studio 54”, as my 10th choice for the Album Challenge.

This compilation of disco classics released by the disco label Casablanca was designed to replicate a night at the disco. All you needed was a disco ball and line of coke, cardboard cutouts of Divine, Halston, and Cher and you were there.

It has been said that the club’s playlist was rather conventional, rather than edgy and underground, and the album reflects that. But the hits were hits for a reason and have remained popular for over 40 years, so it was quite representative. Among the tracks, you had:

“Le Freak” by Chic. This song was actually inspired by the club, or rather by members of Chic being rejected from getting into Studio 54, then channeling their anger into a song called “Fuck Off” which they luckily changed to “Le Freak”, giving them the last laugh.

“Y.M.C.A.” by Village People, a song played at every wedding, but quite subversively gay at the time.

“Take Me Home” by Cher, from her disco period.

“I Love The Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges, later revived memorably in the “Priscilla” film.

“Last Dance” by Donna Summer, ’nuff said.

“Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn, written by her, David Foster, and David Paich of Toto; she would also appear on Toto’s “Georgy Porgy” from their debut album.

“Shake Your Groove Thing” by Peaches and Herb, also memorably used in “Priscilla” during the ping-pong ball scene.

All-in-all, it got us as close to a fabulous night out at Studio 54 as we’d ever get. In truth, the legend probably remains better in our dreams than in reality, probably a night you wouldn’t have remembered anyhow due to all the drugs you ingested. Ah, the dream!

Album Challenge Day 9: The The “Soul Mining”

Soul Mining

Having found the perfect meta name for a band, Matt Johnson released “Soul Mining” in 1983 under the band name The The.

Although Matt was subject to a bidding war and got a huge advance from the winning label, the record sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom; still, the homemade vibe enhances its authenticity, with intensely private thoughts and emotions set to a cheap drum machine. There was enough polish, however, to make it sound sensational, especially when played loud. Can you tell I love this record?

The opening programmed drums of “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All of My Life)” always get me, immediately thrusting me into the album’s beautiful contrast between mechanical music vs emotional voice and lyrics. All in all, Matt wrote great songs, enjoyable just for a sing-along or for deeper reflection and identification. Not mopey, as is the lazy assessment of this album. Just listen to “This is the Day” in the car on a sunny day with the windows down.

It didn’t get the greatest reception when it was released in 1983 but has been reassessed over the years as somewhat of a masterpiece. So much that it was released in a super deluxe edition which my wonderful husband got for me, featuring the originally intended tracklisting along with remixes and bonus tracks. A treasure.

And special mention of the artwork, created by Matt Johnson’s brother Andrew, was unlike anything seen before or since.

Album Challenge Day 8: Take That’s “Beautiful World”

Take That Beautiful World

This is the greatest pop band that America’s never heard of. And what a story!

Picture It: 1990. A British gay club in the middle of nowhere hosting a boyband of five straight lads, absolutely adorable even though their lead singer, Gary Barlow, thinks he’s fat and a bad dancer. Their manager, Nigel Martin-Smith, feels their path to stardom for his manufactured group is through the gays; he’s right because Take That eventually becomes a British phenomenon, unique in singing mostly original material written by Barlow (although they have huge hits with some excellent covers such as “It Only Takes A Minute”, “Relight My Fire” and “Could It Be Magic”). However, after three albums and loads of hits, they finally pierce the American market with “Back For Good” and then…disintegrate. One of their members, Robbie Williams, feeling undervalued, parties with the likes of Oasis, and eventually leaves. Barlow, his head bloated with self-importance, decides to go solo. Things go okay at first, but then his career goes down the kip while Robbie becomes an unlikely megastar.

Barlow hides in his mansion, humiliated by the press, eating his sorrows away; slowly, he begins to write and produce for other artists. In 2006, ten years after the group broke up, Gary feels Take That is ready for a comeback (without Robbie, though). Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past, Gary makes sure that the remaining members – Mark Owen, Jason Orange, and Howard Donald – take part in the songwriting and decision-making, a move that proves not just magnanimous but also artistically fruitful, resulting in the best album of Take That’s career, “Beautiful World”.

The public loves their comeback story and champions their return, taking both their first single, “Patience” and their album to No. 1. Here’s that first, career-resurrecting, single.

Proving it’s no fluke, their second single, a stunning stomper called “Shine”, also hits number one. The album through and through is filled with hit-worthy songs.

To top it all off, they release what proves to be the second biggest hit of their career, “Rule The World” (the first biggest nrinh “Back For Good”). Written for the film “Stardust”, it stays on the U.K. Top 100 for a year and a half.

Finally having learned to appreciate and value his talents and stardom, Barlow kept his ego in check and built upon this re-found success, eventually reconciling with Robbie and welcoming him back into Take That for one album and tour, branching out into TV and generally becoming a national icon.

Peter and I are massive fans of Gary, Robbie and Take That. We’ve seen them in concert together and apart in various configurations a number of times, marveling at their talent and the good feelings they generate. Hopefully the world will return to normal and we’ll get to see them again!

Album Challenge Day 7: Pet Shop Boys “Format”, Best B-Sides Ever!

Format

Why a b-sides collection instead of one of their remarkable albums “Please”, “Very” or “Yes”? Because Pet Shop Boys are perhaps the greatest b-side artists besides The Beatles. See what I did there?

Being so prolific, not everything can fit onto their albums – thus, hilarious, ironic, lyrically engrossing songs often get left as b-sides or bonus tracks on singles. To the great delight of us collectors.

Fun Fact: Their first b-sides collection, “Alternative”, would have been called “Besides” except that another band snatched that title so they had to find an alternative title. That 2-CD set consisted of 30 tracks, covering 1985-1995, followed by “Format”, covering 1996-2009 with a whopping 38 tracks. A third collection should follow, given recent amazing b-sides “An Open Mind”, “No Boundaries” and “Decide”.

I never thought they could top themselves after “Alternative” with classics such as “A Man Could Get Arrested”, “You Know Where You Went Wrong”, “Do I Have To”, “It Must Be Obvious”, “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend”, “Miserablism”, and “Shameless” along with covers “Losing My Mind” (guide vocal version for Liza Minelli), “If Love Were All”, and “Girls & Boys”.

But “Format” does best it – somehow – starting with accompanying b-sides for “Bilingual” including “The Truck-Driver and His Mate”, a banger with crunchy guitars and loving imagery of two men dancing in the moonlight, the wistful “Hit and Miss”, the lovely “The Calm Before the Storm”, the sublime “The View From Your Balcony”, the hilarious “The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On” (“Yo, Louis, You ain’t dancing for all these men…I’m gonna tell your mother!”), and the genius “Delusions of Grandeur”. And that’s just the extra tracks from one album!

This collection continues with “Closer To Heaven” extras such as “Nightlife” and “Friendly Fire”, through “Release” to “Fundamental” with the jammin’ “The Resurrectionist” – about body snatchers in England in the 18th and 19th century who dug up bodies for anatomists – on and on through their amazing album “Yes”.

It’s a smorgasbord for us very hungry Pet Shop Boys fans. How lucky we’ve been to have them in our lives for the past 35 years!

Album Challenge Day 6: The Smiths’ “Hatful of Hollow”

Hatful of Hollow

“How Soon Is Now”, The Smiths’ signature song, was a b-side and not on any proper album. That is, until it became a surprise hit across the world and was added – at least in the U.S. – to “Meat Is Murder”, their second album. Loving the song (hearing it in constant rotation on LA’s premiere pusher of the best ’80s music, KROQ), I rushed out and bought that album, which I loved, but also got “Hatful of Hollow”, a U.K. collection that acted like an early greatest hits, compiling John Peel radio sessions, non-album singles, b-sides, and “How Soons Is Now”. Wow, what an amazing album!

Although the album was in one sense cobbled together, there was a cohesiveness, much looser, deeper, sounding more authentically like The Smiths than their debut album which to me was poorly produced. Instead, this album captured Johnny Marr’s fully realized jangle, sounding like the streets of ’60s Manchester while also starkly ’80s, fused perfectly with Morrissey’s fully realized voice, not only in the sonic sense but as a lyricist, alternating between miserablism and arch hilarity. People who tried to dismiss The Smiths as “mopey” weren’t actually listening or paying attention. Ejits! Morrissey is imo one of the greatest lyricists ever.

Don’t make me choose favorites on this album! But if I must: “William, It Was Really Nothing”, “These Things Take Time”, “Handsome Devil” with its pleading “Let me get my hands, On your mammary glands”, “You’ve Got Everything Now”, “Accept Yourself” (very meaningful to me in my college years), the hypnotic “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (of course), and this one, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”:

Album Challenge Day 5: “Rent”

Rent

As with many Broadway phenomenons, I didn’t see this in its original run. Instead, I had to wait until it got to L.A., without the original cast, but amazingly, with Neil Patrick Harris who played Mark Cohen. It wasn’t a big deal at the time (that guy from “Doogie Howser”???), but the show was so sturdy and songs so amazing that it proved that other casts could make the show fly.

The closest the rest of us mortals could get to the NYTW and Broadway productions with the original cast (Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs!) was through the original cast album. And knowing that the world out there who heard about this remarkable show due to the tragic death of Jonathan Larson would be clamoring to hear it, the producers smartly took their time, produced it meticulously, with songs in full and not truncated, spread over two CDs. This was far from the one-day, sing-till-you’re-hoarse cast album recordings such as the one chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker’s film about “Company”.

And the songs are worth it. All of them. There isn’t one dud. There may be a few wince-inducing lyrics, but that is most likely because Larson died before he could perfect his masterpiece. But come on, all in one show? “Rent”, “One Song Glory”, “Light My Candle”, “Out Tonight”, “Another Day”, “WIll I?”, “I’ll Cover You”, “Take Me Or Leave Me”, “What You Own”, and of course two songs they featured in their Tony’s performance, “Seasons of Love” with “La Vie Boeheme”.

Album Challenge Day 4: John Grant’s “Pale Green Ghosts”

John Grant Pale Green Ghosts

My fourth choice for the album challenge has me jumping forward in time, but spotlighting a hugely impactful album, John Grant’s “Pale Green Ghosts”. This was a tough one since I absolutely adore “Queen of Denmark” but the follow-up “Pale Green Ghosts” contains some of Grant’s very best songs plus shows his eclectic nature, spotlighting not only his contrasting musical interests but his lyrics that veer from wallowing sadness to laugh out loud comedy. And what a grand voice!

The title song opens the album, immediately breaking with the previous album’s honeyed California sound, using insinuating electronic bleets, painting a haunting picture of growing up in the Midwest (I assume, but I’m never great at interpreting lyrics). “GMF” stands for Greatest Mother Fucker and is both hilarious and a great sing-along. And then there are songs addressing the same guy he obsessed about in “Queen of Denmark” (they apparently went out for only six months, but took years for Grant to get over). The album ends with “Glacier”, a transcendent and transfixing song that is better not described. There was no video made, but here’s the audio. Beautiful!

Grant’s got a fascinating bio, having had a career with The Czars before losing it all to drugs and alcohol, then making a miraculous resurrection after getting cleaned up and returning as a solo artist with “Queen of Denmark” while also dealing with being HIV-positive. Beyond the drama, he has a huge talent for languages and currently lives in Iceland (we went to Reykjavik to stalk him), loves his 80s music (yay Icehouse!) and is a great interview; much more will be revealed in a book he’s contracted to write about his life. We’ve seen him live four times and had tickets to see him again two weeks from now in London, but of course, that’s been called off and we’re home, but we can listen to his records and watch his videos and wait for the day we can see him live again.

Album Challenge Day 3: “Grease”

Grease

“Grease” is the Word. If you don’t love this movie and don’t feel compelled to sing-along, you may be dead inside. Check with your doctor.

Picture It: Hawaii 1978. At the time, I was a teen living in Japan on an Army base where we usually got movies and TV shows from the States a year late, but luckily I got a rare trip back to the Motherland where I was able to actually participate in late ’70s pop culture instead of reading about it (I still haven’t gotten over the year or so that it took me to finally see “Star Wars”). I also saw “Airplane” on that trip and although that was amazing, it didn’t rock my world the way “Grease” did.

Wow, who didn’t want to be Olivia Newton-John in those tight spandex pants and dance with John Travolta (before we knew the truth)? And there was the incredible cast including Stockard Channing, Didi Conn, Dinah Manoff, Eve Arden, Joan Blondell, Dody Goodman, and of course Frankie Avalon as The Teen Angel.

By some kind of miracle, it all worked. You see what a feat it was considering all the flop musicals that followed, trying to capture the magic, like “Xanadu”, “Can’t Stop the Music”, and even “Grease 2”.

And the songs! Along with the remarkable songs from the original musical such as “Summer Nights”, “Greased Lightning”, “Beauty School Dropout”, “Look At Me I’m Sandra Dee”, “Born To Hand Jive”, and of course “We Go Together”, the new songs made it even better: “You’re the One That I Want”, “Grease”, “Hopelessly Devoted To You”, and “Sandy”.

With the recent announcement of a “Grease” TV show, one can see the desire to recapture/extend/recreate the magic. But there’ll only be one “Grease”.

Album Challenge Day 2: Gary Numan’s “Telekon”

Telekon

My second choice for the album challenge is Gary Numan’s “Telekon”. No, this does not contain “Cars”, which is pretty much the only Numan song that Americans know despite the fact that he has a raft of hits and most recently hit No. 2 on the U.K. album charts. That was “Pleasure Principle”. “Tekelon” is the follow-up album, the first one of Numan’s that I bought, 40 years ago, which hooked me for a lifetime.

Although it’s the third album in his “machine” phase (after “Relicas” and “The Pleasure Principle”) and on the surface seems cold and wallowing in alienation, it’s got a very emotional, intimate feel to it. The songs are less hooky than the previous album, more complex and textured, with guitars (banned before) and more nuanced synths. The standouts are “This Wreckage”, “The Aircrash Bureau”, ‘Remind Me to Smile”, the glorious “I Dream of Wires” and “The Joy Circuit”, along with non-album single “We Are Glass” and a fabulous cover of Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies (First Movement)”.

I played this endlessly on my Walkman, using it as the soundtrack for sci-fi movies conjured in my heads inspired by his futuristic lyrics.

Anyhow, if you want to check out the rest of Numan’s discography, definitely get “Replicas” and “The Pleasure Principle” but also check out his recent “Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)” which has a harder, more goth feel than he started out with but displays his singular, unique talent.

Album Challenge Day 1: “Mary Poppins”

Mary Poppins Songs

I got challenged on Facebook by my friend Ibo Yilmaz to name 10 albums that have influenced my musical taste and upbringing.

One record per day over a 10 day period. No explanations (usually), no reviews, just the cover art. Well, because I’m posting it here, I’ll give some explanation. Each day, I have to nominate someone else, although haven’t decided if I will.

I’ve chosen “Mary Poppins” although it’s not the movie soundtrack with Julie Andrews but instead the version I grew up, called “10 Songs From Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins”. For some reason, this was not sung by Ms. Andrews but by Marni Nixon, famous for being the singing voice behind many a famous performance including Deborah Kerr in “The King and I”, Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”, and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”. However, Marni did appear lipsyncing her own voice, as Sister Sophia in “The Sound of Music”.

Whatever it was, I adored this album, playing it on our stereo console, a beautiful piece of furniture that had record player, reel-to-reel, and radio. Ah, why don’t they make these any longer?

I’d love to get one of these but replace the guts with new equipment.

And the songs, of course, are timeless: “Spoonful of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday”, “Super-Cali-Fragil-Istic-Expi-Ali-Docious”, “Chim Chim Cheree”, “Step in Time”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and especially the haunting “Feed the Birds”.

This record instilled in me at an early age my love for musical theatre, or at least that style of music, given that I didn’t see a musical on stage until I was in high school.

I have a specific – somewhat sad – memory of playing this album when I was seven years old, dancing around the living room, turning it up hoping someone from outside would notice it and me and join in. But no one did – not for another 12 or so years when I came out of the closet. Well, a fabulously appointed closet filled with music.

So nine more albums to go.